From remembering Claudia Jones to Brexit, Australian style, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Notting Hill Carnival is a monumental event, attracting millions of revellers to West London every year to celebrate the city’s Caribbean community in all its glory. But what is now hailed as a beautiful symbol of multiculturalism (and the second largest street party in the world) was once a humble attempt at unifying a community violently torn apart by racism and xenophobia at the visionary hands of its founding mother, Claudia Jones. Born in Trinidad in 1915, Jones dedicated her life to the fight against intolerance, inequality and oppression. She migrated to Harlem, New York, at the age of eight with her family, where she would grow up to become a political activist and pioneering journalist, giving a voice to the voiceless.
As a child, Jones had always been academically bright, but her education was cut short when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis during her teens – a disease that would plague her throughout her life. After graduating from high school, she worked various retail jobs before discovering her passion for writing, eventually landing an editorial role at a local newspaper. While on staff, she began to engage more and more in politics and activism – spurred on by the injustices of Jim Crow segregation and widespread poverty in African-American communities. [continue reading]
When Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man appeared fifty years ago, it was a revelation. To many of us who were becoming the New Left, Marcuse reflected and explained our own feeling of suffocation, our alienation from an increasingly totalitarian universe that trumpeted its freedom at every moment. We had grown up in it, we had encountered it in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl; but until One-Dimensional Man, we could scarcely understand, let alone describe, it. A student of Marcuse’s, I wrote at the time in Radical America that the book was “a major step in our breaking out of that closing universe. By naming it, by helping us to get conscious of it, by conveying its overwhelming power, [Marcuse] helped us to define ourselves in opposition to it—total opposition.”
He spoke to a deep sense of alienation. “The pure form of servitude,” he wrote, is “to exist as an instrument, as a thing. And this mode of existence is not abrogated if the thing is animated and chooses its material and intellectual food, if it does not feel its being-a-thing, if it is a pretty, clean, mobile thing.” Moreover, “Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves.” [continue reading]
When General Omar Bradley, the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addressed the U.S. Congress in 1951, he warned that to react to a massive communist Chinese counter-offensive across the Yalu River by sending U.S. troops into Manchuria would be “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.” By the time the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Republic of Korea, and the United States finished hammering out a ceasefire three years later, the border had shifted a few miles to the north, while 36,000 Americans and approximately 3 million Koreans had lost their lives.
Experts, historians, and even a sitting U.S. senator have heralded a “new Cold War” with China. The phrase even entered official discourse after the Global Times — a quasi-official Chinese Communist Party English-language media outlet — fired off the Twitter hashtag #newcoldwar. [continue reading]
London Review of Books
Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents, published on behalf of the Home Office, ‘approved by ministers’ and retailing at £12.99, is ‘the only official handbook on which the Life in the UK test is based’. Last week the Historical Association published an open letter – signed so far by more than 350 historians – pointing out that the handbook is ‘fundamentally misleading and in places demonstrably false’. Five immigration lawyers have detailed further disturbing omissions. Some of the most misleading passages date only from the third edition, of 2013. No people of colour in the colonies or the UK are mentioned apart from Sake Dean Mahomed, who co-founded England’s first curry house in 1810. The handbook provides clear detail on the constitution, but the past it presents is both whitewashed and devoid of the work of decades of revisionist history. Anyone applying for British citizenship (in the year to March 2020, 165,693 people) will have had to commit this to memory to pass the test.
I took a practice test. I was asked to locate the Cenotaph, identify some flags of the Union, and name the country of which roast beef is a traditional food. In the Victorian age, the handbook says, ‘Britain increased in power and influence abroad,’ calling to mind a phrase I encountered in a history text book at school in the 1980s: Britain was the ‘policeman of the world’. It had seemed arrestingly strange to me, even in primary school. [continue reading]
When Boris Johnson unveiled his government’s new points-based immigration system in February 2020, designed to deliver Brexit by shifting Britain’s migrant intake “away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe”, the spin cycle was at full tilt. This was no raising of the drawbridge, but a signal that “the UK is open and welcoming to the top talent from across the world” – inspired by the shining example of Australia. Throughout the 2019 election campaign, Johnson had relentlessly touted an “Australian-style points-based system” in order to “take back control” of Britain’s borders. Though criticised by his own advisers for signalling “different things to different people”, the “Australian-style” tag stuck.
Capitalising on the encouraging voter response, Johnson took the Australian connection a step further within days of “getting Brexit done” on January 31. In a major address to business leaders, the prime minister went out of his way to dispel outmoded conceptions of Britain’s future options outside the European Union. “The choice is emphatically not ‘deal or no deal’,” he insisted. “The question is whether we agree a trading relationship with the EU comparable to Canada’s – or more like Australia’s. In either case, I have no doubt that Britain will prosper.” [continue reading]